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The Padma Shri recipient who changed Indian tea

R.K. Krishna Kumar played a pivotal role in the growth of the tea industry in India

R.K. Krishna Kumar. (Photo by Harish Bhat)
R.K. Krishna Kumar. (Photo by Harish Bhat)

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In the story of India’s tea, most of the great disruptions seem to have occurred pre-independence, whether it was in breaking the Chinese monopoly over tea, or creating a nation of tea drinkers. Post-independence stories seem fewer and far between.

This was on my mind as I read the tributes to Padma Shri awardee R.K. Krishna Kumar, who died on 1 January, and the role he played in the growth of the tea industry. All of Krishna Kumar’s working years were with the Tata group, where he also served as managing director, and then vice-chairman, of Tata Tea. A legendary story related to KK, as he was popularly known, has been recorded by author and Tata brand custodian Harish Bhat. He writes that in 1989, when KK was watching the Berlin Wall come down, he knew the company needed to go global. It took 10 years to achieve it—but it proved to be a turning point for the Tatas, and the Indian tea industry.

This was the acquisition of Tetley, a company double the size of Tata Tea in revenue, with a net worth that was nearly two-thirds more. The story begins in 1991, when Tata Tetley took shape as a joint venture to produce tea bags for Tetley’s markets. Four years later, Tetley was up for sale and KK, backed by his bosses, made a bid on behalf of the Tata group, demonstrating an audacity of ambition we were not known for. The deal did not go through. In February 1999, however, Tetley was up for sale again and KK received a call asking if the Tatas were still interested. At the start of the new millennium, Tetley became a Tata company.

Backtracking a bit, there’s another story of KK’s boss at Tata Tea, Darbari Seth. Seth was part of the team that set out to acquire Tetley, backing KK all the way. Unfortunately, he didn’t live to see the closing of the deal.

Seth and KK were a formidable team. Tata Tea emerged as a company in 1982, after its two-decade joint venture with the Finlay group ended. It was a plantation company with estates in Munnar, Kerala, and Assam. By the late 1980s, Seth, who was chairman of Tata Tea, and KK, who was vice-chairman, felt they needed to begin branding tea.

Being a plantation company meant living with a fickle market dependent on the vagaries of the weather and price fluctuations. A brand would bring stability. It would also provide fresher teas, since it would be packed at the estates itself.

But early attempts to pack teas had not worked, for tea absorbs flavours and odours. Seth is credited with the introduction of poly packs, laminated packets that keep out both air and moisture. By creating a brand around taazgi (freshness), Seth changed the Indian consumer’s access to, and experience of, estate-fresh tea. Poly packs became a standard and led to the rise of several local brands.

That it comes in a laminated packet may seem a small detail but in the Indian tea story, it has made all the difference.

Tea Nanny is a fortnightly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry. @AravindaAnanth1 on Twitter. 

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